The price tag of tagging

Graffiti is a problem that can be seen throughout Louisville sprayed on businesses, road signs and anything else deemed a fitting canvas to vandals.

Graffiti is a costly problem in Louisville

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WHAS11) -- Sprayed onto buildings, under overpasses, on signs and the trains that pass through Louisville, it's hard to miss it - letters, words and sometimes what looks like random streaks.

To TJ Swan, the wall to his business is just that - a wall. But to others, the gray facade is a blank canvas to showcase their work to the traffic driving by on Interstate 65.

"It's not what we asked for and it's not what we want," Swan said.

Swan, the general manager of Roto-Rooter Louisville, said he came into work one spring morning to find 50 feet of his building tagged in colorful spray paint with the vandal's tools still left at the scene. Swan said that was the third time his building has been hit in two years.

"It's very discouraging because you get it done and then it happens again, and you take care of it, and it happens again repeatedly," he said.

Roto-Rooter has the locked gates, the warning signs on the fences, and even security cameras, which caught the vandal at work, but none of that appears to be a deterrent.

"I mean they had to plan it. It's not a spur of the moment thing," Swan said. "I think it's something that they plan to do and they figure out when they're going to do it and take advantage of it."

Swan isn't the only person who's had his property hit by graffiti vandals, and it's a problem that appears to be getting worse. The Department of Codes and Regulations said the number of citations written to people with graffiti on their property through August 2017 has already surpassed all the cases in 2016. And those are just the reported cases, with Josh White, the executive director of the Louisville Graffiti Abatement Coalition, estimating the actual number of graffiti instances in the Metro area could be in the six figures.

"If you want to end graffiti in the city, you have to remove it within two days," White said. "Now that's not going to happen overnight because it's going to take us a while to catch up, probably about four years just to catch up."

According to White, something is determined to be graffiti based on three criteria: whether there was permission given, whether the subject matter is appropriate and how large the signature is.

"If it's larger than say 10 or 15 percent, depending on where you are in the country, then it's going to be graffiti because they're promoting themselves," he said.

The cost to a vandal may be just the price of the cans of paint, but the overall price of graffiti is much more and can often come at your expense. According to the Department of Codes and Regulations, it has budgeted $190,000 in the 2017-2018 budget to get rid of graffiti, which includes cleaning supplies and worker salaries.

In the first eight months of 2017, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet has spent almost $39,000 in taxpayer dollars in the Fifth District to remove graffiti from the interstate system. KYTC said it does not remove graffiti from signs unless the lettering is obscured or there are obscene words or symbols, citing safety risks for its employees.

"Once you put one sign up, that says, 'Hey everyone, it's okay to do graffiti here because this sign hasn't been taken down,'" Swan said. "The entire neighborhood or area becomes endangered of having more graffiti."

For businesses like Swan's, they are often given 30 to 60 days to clean off the graffiti using their own funds, otherwise, they could face a fine from the city, but the Department of Codes and Regulations said it is flexible and willing to work with property owners that have been victims of vandalism.

"It takes about four hours to get it primed and repainted and it costs about $125-$150 for paint, and that comes out of the company," Swan said.

"If we're doing it ourselves, probably if we had to paint the side of this building, you're talking $1,000," business owner Mark Hillerich said.

"It's going to take the whole community to just join in and collaboratively attack this particular problem," Donald Robinson, the deputy director of the Department of Codes and Regulations said.

The city said it has been working on the graffiti problem with property managers and law enforcement, but as Swan and other business owners have found, the solution isn't just in fences and cameras.

"I caught one person one morning on my camera," Hillerich, the owner of Auto Motion, said. "And I confronted him and he took off running."

But an answer could be out there, possibly in plain view on the corner of Clay and Finzer. One wall of Hillerich's business has been hit over and over again by vandals, painted over each time.

"It just keeps coming back," he said. "When they paint over it, they've got a nice new canvas to work with."

But just around the corner is a mural, painted eight months earlier.

"Night and day. Night and day," he said. "Nothing. Like I say, if you've got something nice on the wall, usually they won't tag it."

"I think it's a mutual respect from artist to artist," Ehren Reed, the outreach program director with Louisville Visual Art said. "It's just as simple as that."

Reed said part of her mission is to encourage more mural art like this, which she said is a proven deterrent and helps add character to a neighborhood.

"It seems that making that initial investment to create a mural and a formalized artwork as a preventative measure for future vandalism, to me, it seems a no-brainer."

"I've offered my whole building," Hillerich said. "If they want to put a mural on my building, I'll pay for the paint."

It's a costly nuisance at best, a gateway to more dangerous aspects of urban blight to others, but there's one thing everyone can agree on - to bring it to an end will take teamwork, resources and some creativity.

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